Survivors of war have traveled between worlds – from conflict to peace. As they traverse these two planes of existence they struggle to understand what they saw and how to move forward. Sometimes this journey takes years, for others traversing the road from memory to reality is a life-long battle.
“You don’t go through those experiences and not come back permanently changed,” said Michael Baker, a veteran who served in Vietnam.
Baker is also the chairman of the Veterans Advisory Board, which provides emergency services to veterans in need, their children, widows, widowers and/ or orphans. In 2007, the advisory board was formed and put in charge of distributing money from the Veterans Assistance Fund, which comes from San Juan County property taxes.
According to county Auditor Milene Henley, the funds are an “earmarked levy,” which means that although the levy is not stated separately on property tax bills, it is required to come out of the general county levy. The amount is 1-1/8 – 27 cents of $1,000 of assessed valuation. According to Baker, former County Commissioner Alan Lichter started the board because he felt that it could be effective in providing the funds to veterans.
There are a total of 607,501 veterans living in Washington state, according to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs.
According to a report by ABC news, 2,333,972 American military personnel had been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or both, as of 2011. Of that total, 1,353,627 have since left the military. According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, nearly half, or 977,542, of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have been deployed more than once.
According to the San Juan County website, there are 2,500 veterans in the islands.
Members of the Veterans Advisory Board are required to be former military. The board members are Baker, Pat Ayers, Jack Cory, Bill Cumming, Steve Jehly, Shannon Plummer and Ted Whitley.
Support for island vets
Baker joined the board as one of the only formerly enlisted people. He was in an Army Aviation unit during the Vietnam War working as a technician that specialized in electronic equipment.
Over the years, Baker has seen the treatment of those returning from war not change all that much.
“We are treated better as individuals but needs are not any better met than during the Vietnam War,” Baker said. “We aren’t getting spit on. Getting back from the [Vietnam] War as an individual wasn’t a popular thing. I didn’t tell anyone.”
His wife was the only person who Baker could talk to, which helps him to understand how hard it is for veterans to ask for help. In his current position he tries to support the vets that are making a good transition to civilian life. He said that out of the 2,500 veterans who live on the island, the board may see 20 or 30 in a year. Baker describes that support as a broad range of services: everything from grocery money to rent to helping with a dental bill. Once a veteran’s widow came to the board to ask for help to pay for a funeral service.
“If the problem is cash flow, we can offset those expenses,” Baker said.
According to San Juan County documents the amount of money given to veterans each year varies. The average amount of money dispersed from the fund to veterans since 2007 is $35,626. Many veterans who Baker works with come in once and he never sees them again. Others have longer-term issues.
“They [veterans] exist,” Baker said. “There are frustrations of not being able to offer a program that helps them more than just piecemeal.”
For instance, he works with an 86-year-old vet who the board has to reauthorize food for every three months. Ayers, who has been on the board for four years, said that when she looks at the applicants who need help she feels empathetic.
“There are a lot of Vietnam, Gulf and Afghanistan veterans that when they got out they didn’t get the care they needed,” she said. “This is our fault.”
Ayers served as a medic in the Navy for 12 years and was stationed in Puerto Rico during the Grenada Crisis. For Baker, who has spent four years on the board and two years as chairman, he describes his role as just picking up the pieces of a broken system. Nationwide he is disappointed that there is so little support for veterans.
“I know what war smells like and what it looks like and I’m awfully cynical,” Baker said.
Baker said lately he has seen vets emerging from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are 30 years old or younger, but there are vets from the Korean War, the Vietnam War and even an 85-year-old who served in World War II.“We have quite a varied clientele,” he said. Baker said that there is a good chance that there are veterans on the island who are too proud to ask for help.
The board is still figuring out how they can reach veterans in the community.
“Word of mouth seems the most effective,” he said.
If someone is struggling outside of the financial sector, the board members will connect vets with the senior centers’ social service program.Applications for the Veterans Assistance Fund can be picked up at the senior center, the library and police station.
Baker urges vets in need to talk to someone at the American Legion or talk to any of the board members.
“We are a group of veterans who are helping their fellow veterans,” Ayers said.
There are currently two spaces available on the board. Ayers hopes that some younger vets may step up to the challenge. For more info, visit www.co.sanjuan.wa.us/Committees/Veterans/Default.aspx.